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The first painting I found at the KIA was Autumn Sunset at Greenwood by Jasper Cropsey. It first caught my eye because of the large lake and its contrast to the land next to it. The river connects the foreground to the background, there are grazing animals (cattle), and the mountains as well as the dark clouds above them in the background represent the idea of the sublime. I believe, since this painting is based on a place in Greenwood Lake, New York, it may represent the idea of a getaway in an urbanizing environment. It was painted in 1876, so America was 100 years old at that point. New York was becoming urbanized amidst the beginning of the Industrial Revolution after the Civil War. This painting directly critiques that idea and reminds people that they do not have to conform to the urbanizing environment, and that there is still ways to escape to the spiritual world of nature. I think the use of all the fall colors (bright oranges, darker reds, and yellows), as well as the sunset in the sky, gives the audience a calm feeling. One of my personal aesthetics that I seek in nature is the idea that it is a piece of history minimally touched by man, and that the slow changes occurring over time are an extensive contrast from the rapid changing technologies and culture of the modern world. This painting reflects my feeling perfectly; as the human environment was changing rapidly, this virtually untouched piece of land still connected humanity to Earth’s natural past. One interesting note about Jasper Cropsey’s work is that this idea shows up in most of his other pieces. After briefly scanning over his other paintings, I concluded that almost all of them were based on natural environments in different parts of New England (some in New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York), which all generally reflect the idea of escaping urbanization in those areas.
The next painting that caught my eye was Heart of the Andes by Robert Duncanson, painted in 1871 (note: originally painted by Fredric Church in 1857). The Hudson River compositional elements include a huge representation of the sublime in the form of a dark mountain chain filling the background, idle figures in the foreground, a river through to the background, and framing vegetation with trees on either side of the river. This painting gives me more of a spiritual sense than Cropsey’s Autumn Sunset at Greenwood. The idling figures in the foreground seem to be travelling on a path that leads through the mountains in the background. The idea of the power of God in the face of the sublime comes into play, in that these travelling figures are about to directly face this dangerous path. My speculation on the overall message of the painting is that the landscape is not always friendly and pretty, and that conquering it is no easy task. This might be in response to the American westward expansionist ideal at the time. Although I am not personally religious, I find the idea of conquering risky landscapes through spirituality to be particularly interesting, and I respect the idea of God creating these epic sublime representations. An interesting fact about Robert Duncanson is that at the same time he was creating Hudson River School inspired pieces, he was also being commissioned by abolitionist patrons to depict antislavery scenes.
The last Hudson River School painting I found was Mount Brewer from King’s River Canyon, by Albert Bierstadt in 1872. This is based on a landscape found in California. The elements include slight framing vegetation (a few trees on either side) and a large icon of the sublime in the form of the mountain itself. This painting connects romanticism with the rugged view of the American West. Bierstadt depicted this in Mount Brewer by romanticizing the rugged landscape and natural formations. I personally think the feel from the sublime representation in the painting leans more toward the awe-inspiring part of the sublime ideal, rather than the dangerous side. Maybe this painting was meant to draw people to the west, and show skeptics that the scary-looking landscapes were not all that bad. This differs from Duncanson’s painting because of that. Instead of a dangerous trek, Bierstadt depicted the sublime as something to be admired and respected. That lines up with my personal feelings of the sublime as well. I think epic storms and mountains are not something to be feared, but can be an adrenaline-filled experience when experienced firsthand, and are certainly admirable. An interesting fact about Bierstadt is that his paintings were heavily criticized for being too “light” and over-romanticized, and that they created a false sense of promise from the American West.
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